19 August 2013
Although it seems to have dipped somewhat in recent years, periodically I get requests from conferences or webinars or other presentation-oriented organizations/events that demand that the material I present be "exclusive", usually meaning that I've never delivered said content at any other organized event (conference or what-have-you). And, almost without exception, I refuse to speak at those events, or else refuse to abide by the "exclusive" tag (and let them decide whether they still want me to speak for them).
People (by which I mean "organizers"--most speakers seem to get it intuitively if they've spoken at more than five or so conferences in their life) have expressed some surprise and shock at my attitude. So, I decided to answer some of the more frequently-asked questions that I get in response to this, partly so that I don't have to keep repeating myself (yeah, right, as if said organizers are going to read my blog) and partly because putting something into a blog is a curious form of sanity-check, in that if I'm way off, commenters will let me know posthaste.
"Nobody will come to our conference/listen to our webinar if the content is the same as elsewhere." This is, by far, the first and most-used reaction I get, and let me be honest: if people came to your conference or fired up your webinar solely because of the information contained, they would never come to your conference or listen to your webinar. The Internet is huge. Mind-staggeringly huge. Anything you could possibly ever want about any topic you could ever possibly imagine, it's captured it somewhere. (There's a corollary to that, too; I call it "Whittington's Law", which states, "Anything you can possibly imagine, the Internet not only has it, but a porn site version of it, as well".) You will never have exclusive content, because unless I invented the damn thing, and I've never shown it to anybody or ever used it before, somebody will likely have used it, written a blog post or a video tutorial or what-have-you, and posted it to the Internet. Therefore, by definition, it can't be exclusive.
But even on top of that first point, no presentation given by the same guy using the same slides is ever exactly the same. Anybody who's ever seen me give a talk twice knows that a lot of how I give my presentations is extremely ad-hoc; I like to write code on the fly, incorporate audience feedback and participation, and sometimes I even get caught up in a tangent that we explore along the way. None of my presentations are ever scripted, such that if you filmed two of them and played them side-by-side, you'll see marked and stark differences between them. And frankly, if you're a conference organizer, you should be quite happy about this, because one of the first rules of presenting is to "Know thy audience", but if you can't know your audience ahead of time, what course is left to you but to poll the audience when you first get started, and adjust your presentation based on that?
"Sure, the experience won't be as great as if they were in the room at the time, but if they can get the content elsewhere, why should they come to our conference?" Well.... Honestly, that question really needs to be rephrased: "Given all the vast amounts of information out there on the Internet, why should someone come to your conference, period?" If you and your fellow organizers can't answer that question, then my content isn't going to help you in the slightest. TechEd and other big conferences that stream all of their content to the Web seem to be coming to the realization that there is something about the in-person experience that still creates value for attendees, so maybe you should be thinking about that, instead. Yes, you will likely lose a few ticket sales from people watching the content online, but if those numbers are staggeringly large, it means that your conference offered nothing but content in the first place, and you were going to see those numbers drop off significantly anyway once the majority of your audience figured out that the content is available elsewhere. And for free, no less.
"But why is this so important to you?" Because, my friends, everything gets better with practice, and that includes presentations. When I taught for DevelopMentor lo those many years ago, one of the fundamental rules was that "You don't really know a deck until you've delivered it five times". (I call it "Sumida's Law", after the guy who trained me there.) What's more, the more often you've presented on a subject, the more easily you see the "right" order to the topics, and better ways of explaining and analogizing those topics occur to you over time. ("Halloway's Corollary to Sumida's Law": "Once you've delivered a deck five times, you immediately want to rewrite it all".) To be quite honest with you all, the first time I give a talk is much like the beta release of any software product: it takes user interaction and feedback before you start to see the non-obvious bugs.
I still respect the conference or webinar host that insists on exclusive content, and I wish you well finding your next speaker, but it won't be me. Or anyone I mentor or shepherd.
Last modified 19 August 2013